The way we live is often mirrored by how our companion animals live. One example of this the increasing electronification of our dogs and cats. Some of these electronic pet products are arguably quite useful, such as GPS tracker in collars and nanny-cams, which can reassure us that our furry friends are okay while were away. Others, such as devices that allow us to video chat with our dog or car and electronic treat-releasers, are inessential but fun. But a whole segment of this electronic market poses significant welfare concerns for dogs and cats.
The commercial pet product market is saturated with electronic training devices. By far the most popular of these and also the most insidious, are electronic shock collars, often euphemistically called “e-collars” (which calls to mind “e-mail” and “e-shopping” and other benign activities).
The e-collar delivers an electric shock to a dog’s neck when a person pushes a remote-control button or when a dog steps over an underground wire “fence.” As electronic shock collars are increasingly understood to be cruel, another line of electronic products is flooding into the e-training niche and being marketed as a “harmless and humane” alternative: ultrasonic collars and “fences.”
What are ultrasonic training devices and how do they work?
These ultrasonic behavior deterrents work by emitting a high-pitched sound when activated. The anti-bark systems detect barking and emit a high-pitched sound in response. The barrier systems involve a collar worn by the dog and a device, which emits a high-pitched sound when it detects the collar within range.
These deterrent devices can be placed in areas around the house (the website for one such product shows a dog, adorned with e-collar, dutifully avoiding the couch), in the vegetable garden, or along the edge of a yard. One of the main selling points of these devices is that the deterrent sounds are inaudible to humans. (Sonic collars, in contrast, emit sounds within our hearing range.)
Manufacturers of these ultrasonic devices typically claim that they are safe and humane. But are they really?
The use of “aversives” on dogs
Is ultrasonic noise aversive to dogs? Of course. This is the basis upon which these products work. A huge literature dating back several decades explores the negative effects of unpleasant and unwanted noise on a wide range of species (including humans).
In laboratory animal behavior studies, ultrasound is one of a range of aversive techniques used to elicit a stress response. A study published as far back as 1990 confirmed that ultrasonic sounds were aversive to dogs (Blackshaw et al. 1990).
These ultrasonic devices should, thus, be classified as “aversives.” This is not how they are typically advertised, but this is how they function. They work by imposing an unpleasant sensory experience and they fall into the category of “positive punishment” — using discomfort to get a dog to behave in a particular way.
The evidence has been accumulating over the past decade that aversive training techniques are less effective than positive reinforcement and that aversive techniques and products can cause lasting psychological harm to dogs. (For a comprehensive review see, for example, Ziv 2017 and G. Fernandes, A.S. Olsson, A. C. Vieira de Castro 2017.)
I asked Rain Jordan, a professional dog trainer, who specializes in helping fearful and traumatized dogs what she thought about ultrasonic training devices. “The sound emitted from the devices is punishing dogs by startling and/or causing discomfort,” she told me in an email.
These devices punish any bark that comes out of a dog’s mouth and can’t discriminate between appropriate/happy/excited barking and “nuisance” barking. Barking is a perfectly normal, even necessary, dog behavior and is only a nuisance relative to human preferences.
When normal behavior is discouraged and suppressed, you “risk either learned helplessness, on the one hand, or aggression without warning on the other.” Dogs wearing e-collars don’t necessarily understand why they are being punished, and even if they do know why, they eventually habituate to the punishment and the “problem” behavior returns. Owners, then, are tempted to up the ante by increasing the volume button on the ultrasonic device or moving to something more extreme, such as a shock collar.
Although U.S.-based animal advocacy organizations do not yet explicitly mention ultrasonic devices, RSPCA Australia has taken a firm stand. In their position statement on the use of shock collars they oppose “the use of collars that deliver aversive stimuli such as sound or scent, including citronella collars and high-pitched sound-emitting devices.” In the second point of their statement, they note: “Electronic anti-barking devices inflict pain and distress on the animal and therefore should not be used.” (See below for their full position statement.)
There are better options
An article on ultrasonic bark collars in Canine Journal describes these devices as “more humane than other bark deterring options.” But why go with something even a little inhumane when you have humane alternatives?
Collaborative work with a dog using good, old-fashioned treats and praise can be mutually enriching, build a strong relationship between human and dog, and help a dog understand what we are asking and us understand how to ask clearly for what we want. The growing consensus among dog trainers is that aversive training techniques are less effective than those based on positive reinforcements such as food rewards, play, praise, and extra love.
We also need to have realistic expectations about what we can ask from our dogs. Dogs bark. Listening to some barking is part of living with a dog. If a dog is barking all the time, it may be that the dog is experiencing frustration and lack of stimulation and we should be looking for the root causes of the barking. Dealing with the problem barking, then, means looking at a dog’s life experience holistically and honestly assessing whether a dog is getting what they need physically, socially, and emotionally.
Here is the relevant section of RSPCA Australia’s statement:
RSPCA Australia is also opposed to the use of collars that deliver aversive stimuli such as sound or scent, including citronella collars and high-pitched sound-emitting devices.
- This type of training is called ‘punishment’ as the dog is effectively punished by the collar for every bark. Punishment, as a method of training, is often ineffective as dogs often do not associate the punishment (the citronella spray, sound or shock) with the behaviour. Positive reinforcement is a preferable training technique as it provides an incentive for desirable behaviour. In this case, you would reward your dog when he stops barking and remains quiet, by offering her a tasty treat or play with a favourite toy. Food treats are good to start with but as training progresses your dog should recognise verbal praise and a pat as a treat.
- Electronic anti-barking devices inflict pain and distress on the animal and therefore should not be used.
- This type of behavioural modification does not tend to be successful because it fails to address the underlying cause of the behaviour. Dogs bark for many reasons: play, fear, separation anxiety, frustration, environmental factors, boredom etc. These devices will not necessarily solve the underlying cause of the barking and will only temporarily mask the problem.
- Scientific evidence shows that dogs will eventually habituate to the collar and barking will resume again.
- Sometimes it is appropriate for dogs to bark (e.g. as a means of communication) in which case the collar punishes them for normal behaviour. Because the collar does not discriminate between problem barking and normal canine behaviour, there is a potential for abuse if the collar is routinely left on for too long.
The treatment of nuisance behaviours such as excessive barking should begin by determining the root cause of the problem and then attempting to address the underlying cause humanely.
J.K. Blackshaw, G.E.Cook, P.Harding, C.Day, W.Bates, J.Rose, D. Bramham. Aversive responses of dogs to ultrasonic, sonic and flashing light units. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 25 (1990).
G. Ziv. The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs—A review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. Volume 19, May–June 2017, Pages 50-60.
G. Fernandes,. A.S. Olsson, A. C. Vieira de Castro. Do aversive-based training methods actually compromise dog welfare? A literature review. Applied Animal Behaviour Science Volume 196, November 2017, Pages 1-12.
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